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So much remains to be done in the city to which less than half of the pre-Katrina population of 445,000 has returned. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers works around the clock to repair the Lego levees. Charity and Memorial hospitals are still boarded up. The National Guard continues to supplement an overburdened and underpaid police force, especially in such notorious neighborhoods as Central City and Carrollton. Thousands of insurance cases still need to be settled. Clearly, the people of New Orleans know much about false promises, which makes their embrace of former USC star Reggie Bush--and his of them--a year after Katrina something much more compelling than the usual preseason optimism. "We just got Jesus in cleats," was how one fan put it to The Washington Post when the Saints made the 21-year-old running back the No. 2 pick in the April draft. He was also the "Golden Child" or the "Savior" in the local papers. On his first trip to New Orleans, in April, citizens from every social strata lined up outside Emeril's restaurant to get a glimpse of the young man whom they perceive to be a rare sign of something going right.
In late July he dropped his brief holdout and signed a six-year, $62 million contract, making good on a vow that he had made in May, when he said, "I want to be in camp on time--I think it is important to start off on a good note, not only with the team but the city."
The city was already his. Cash-strapped New Orleans can't properly equip its high school football teams, but the poorest kid could afford to Scotch-tape a newspaper picture of number 25 to the refrigerator. "He's the man," a teenager in a saint reggie T-shirt enthused in line at Hansen's Sno-Bliz stand the day after Bush rushed for 59 yards on six carries against the Titans in his debut. "Nobody can do it the way Reggie can!"
Some 15,000 of those T-shirts sold out on the day they were printed. Season-ticket sales stand at 55,000--the highest mark in franchise history. Mobs of fans have made the pilgrimage to Jackson, Miss., site of the Saints' training camp, to watch Reggie work out. "We're being embraced in cities like Jackson and Shreveport and Baton Rouge," says Rita Benson-LeBlanc, granddaughter of Saints owner Tom Benson. "Our organization is like a symphony. Everything is building, building. Reggie has embraced our region, and our fans love him for it."
New Orleanians also quickly found out that Bush doesn't just talk the talk. One of his first moves was to write a personal check for $50,000 to a local Catholic school for disabled students. Along with Adidas, he has donated $86,000 to seed and maintain a city high school football field. And 25% of the royalties from Bush's Saints jersey are going to hurricane relief efforts. Because of its association with Bush, Pepsi has donated $1 million to rebuild homes in the area, and Subway has pledged to make charitable contributions. What's next? Maybe Saint Reggie statues in the Jackson Square Cathedral gift shop alongside ones of Saint Jude, the patron saint of hopeless cases.
This is not the first time New Orleans has pinned its future on an NFL star. The town remembers Archie Manning and Ricky Williams and Mike Ditka and how they couldn't stop the losing. Given the checkered history with supposed saviors, Saints fans might want to keep their expectations in check, but Bush is making that difficult. In the first quarter of his first game, on Aug. 12 against Tennessee, he electrified the crowd when, sweeping to his left, he ran into a swarm of Titans, turned back, shifted gears and gained 44 yards. Nine days later Louisianans got their first down-home look at him, against Dallas in Shreveport. While Bush's numbers weren't gaudy (four carries with a long gain of nine yards, and two catches for 14 yards), he left enough Cowboys defenders in his wake with his open-field moves to justify Saints Pro Bowl wide receiver Joe Horn's assessment that Bush is "an amazing talent."
August 29 marks the one-year anniversary of Katrina; Sept. 25, the Saints' home opener against Atlanta at the Superdome, is the official rebirth of the city. "Something in the air is magical," LeBlanc says. "Katrina is pulling us all together. Every day it feels special to be helping the area recover from the trauma. We're lifting spirits." If the President of the United States comes to the home opener, as has been rumored, he won't be the most loudly cheered Bush in the patched-up building.
None of this, by the way, surprises the Reverend William Maestri, superintendent of schools for the archdiocese of New Orleans. Maestri lately has been reminding students and teachers about a certain follower of Saint Dominic in 12th-century France, a man who lived a life of prayer and generosity and concern for the poor. The man's name? Blessed Reginald of Orleans.
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